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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2584

PPP-PML-N Alliance in doldrums

By Asif Haroon Raja

Quirk of fate brought the two mainstream political leaders Benazir and Nawaz back to the country after nine and eight years of exile respectively. Till mid 2007, none could think of such a scenario even in his wildest stretch of imagination because of far too many complications involved. For seven years Musharraf and his handmade legislature had condemned the two leaders in severest words. He had vowed not to allow the corrupt leaders to return who had robbed the nation. He vehemently brushed aside all suggestions of reconciliation saying that he could not break bread with looters.

Accountability drive against Benazir and her husband Zardari was unleashed with full gusto and the people kept informed of the progress made in digging out proofs of the couple’s massive plunder of national kitty. The NAB hunted the two like a hound and furnished requisite implicating documents to foreign courts in London, Geneva and Madrid handling property and money laundering cases. Purchase of Surrey Palace in the suburbs of London and illegal removal of antiques and costly furniture from Pakistan to furnish the newly acquired palace was shown on electronic media. Nawaz and Shahbaz were also implicated in several corruption cases.

With so much of hype created through the media about their wrongdoings during the decade of democracy, one could see very little prospect of their return. Inscription of a restrictive clause in the electoral laws forbidding a candidate to stand for PM’s seat for the third time foreclosed their chances of return to power. Notwithstanding that cases of Sharif brothers were not as serious as that of Benazir and her spouse, and that Nawaz conviction on hijacking had been pardoned by the then President Rafiq Tarar in 2000, however Nawaz’s return was ruled out on account of an agreement he had signed to stay abroad till 2012.

Nature intervened and made President Musharraf commit a blunder of sacking chief Justice Iftikhar in March 2007. This event was a turning point in his otherwise smooth rule and changed the politics of the country. Instead of political forces, the lawyer community launched country wide protests demanding re-instatement of Iftikhar, independence of judiciary and rule of law. Political parties which till then were in a state of slumber took advantage of lawyers’ agitation and joined the fray. When members of civil society also joined in, it catapulted the agitations into a movement and also gave heart to the judges to hand out a historic judgement, re-instating Iftikhar on 20 July. His re-instatement was a watershed and reinforced hopes for independence of judiciary sooner than later.

Although the Supreme Court judgement defused the lawyers’ movement before time, however, it put immense pressure on Musharraf. Turn of events compelled Musharraf to explore other avenues to strengthen his hands politically so that he was able to deal with the challenge posed by the activated judiciary duly supported by super charged legal fraternity and the supportive media. He struck a power sharing deal with Benazir and promised to waive off all her corruption charges in return for her political support. He made a mutually beneficial deal with her since his own survival had become vulnerable. USA played a key role in bringing the two arch foes together and making them bury the hatchet and agreeing jointly work together to be able to share power in the future government.

Musharraf had to swallow the bitter pill since PML Q had failed to provide him the requisite political support in the war on terror and had also failed to eclipse the popularity of the two mainstream leaders. Since both were needy, it therefore became easy for USA to affect a rapprochement without much ado. Musharraf could have struck a bargain with Nawaz but neither had he shown any signs of conciliation nor Americans were interested in him. Saudis came to the rescue of Nawaz and he returned just in time to file his nomination papers but not knowing that he and Shahbaz would be disallowed to take part in the elections.

Benazir was blamed for the disarray within the ranks of politicians at this crucial juncture because of her duplicitous stance. From July onwards she had been constantly using the word ‘democracy’ to slip past any hurdle she came across. She felt no compunction in admitting that she had struck a secret deal with Gen Musharraf but cleverly labelled it as a dialogue aimed at reviving true democracy in Pakistan. She had no qualms about the controversial NRO either since in her jaundiced view it was essential for the promotion of harmony and democracy. According to her logic, by taking part in presidential election but abstaining from voting, the PPP had not only fulfilled its commitment given to other political parties but had also helped in paving the way for restoration of democracy.

After her return under dubious circumstances, she took credit for any concession made by the ruling regime. She maintained that announcement of election date and Musharraf’s removal of uniform was linked with the dialogue that she had with him. She claimed that return of Nawaz was made possible because of the NRO and that his return had given a boost to democratic forces. She also claimed that regime’s intention to lift emergency and revoke PCO was because of sustained pressure exerted by political and legal forces spearheaded by PPP. She added that support for independence of judiciary and not for individuals was in the interest of democracy.

She argued that if the issue of deposed judges was turned into a chief issue and resulted in boycott of elections, it would favour Musharraf and his King’s Party only and hence a great set back to the cause of democracy. At the same time she complained about Election Commission, caretaker cabinets and district governments bewailing that unless corrected the contestants would remain devoid of a level playing field and hence detrimental to the return of genuine democracy. She announced that her party would participate in elections under protest for the sake of democracy. She downplayed the sustained efforts of the lawyers that pressured Musharraf to hold the hand of Benazir. Lifting of emergency within 42 days was also to a large extent because of pressure exerted by lawyers duly joined by, political forces, media and civil society.

The two mainstream leaders pretended to be very friendly because both considered PML Q as their common foe. It was in the interest of PPP that the two factions of PML fight with each other to divide the votes in Punjab so that it could benefit from their tussle.

Benazir wanted PML N to take part in elections not to win but to break the PML Q votes. Q League was not acceptable to Benazir since Ch Pervez Elahi considered himself the most deserving candidate for the slot of PM. This ambition of his was unacceptable to her and hence her preference of Nawaz League over Q League to form a coalition government.

PPP and PML N understanding and some seat adjustments tipped the scales in its favour. Nawaz was acceptable to Benazir as long as he played the second fiddle. Any attempt by him to step on her toes and to vie for the coveted seat would have turned her smiles into frowns and the same old rivalry would have resurfaced. If one recollects Benazir statement made soon after the signing of charter of democracy; she had claimed that Nawaz had consented to let her rule the roost for five years and that he would take his turn subsequently.

Whatever time she had during the election campaign and the handicaps she suffered on account of restrictions imposed on political leaders because of security threats, she made her presence felt. Knowing that judges’ issue had become highly sensitive and emotive, she marched up to the detained chief justice Iftikhar residence in Islamabad and vowed to restore him. However, her dreams and ambitions remained unfulfilled when she was tragically assassinated by unknown terrorists at Liaquat Bagh on 27 December. Her sudden departure shifted the reins of the party into the hands of her controversial husband Asif Zardari who somehow played his cards skilfully and saved the party from disintegration.

It was again the quirk of fate which brought him in the spotlight particularly after the PPP emerged as the single largest party in the elections held on 18 February. PML-N which competed in elections under adverse conditions took everyone by surprise when it followed behind PPP at the centre and won the race in Punjab. Other surprises were the defeat of PML-Q and the victory of ANP in the Frontier province with ten seats in the centre and ouster of MMA.

After the formation of PPP-PML-N coalition governments in the centre and in Punjab, Musharraf and his cronies hatched conspiracies to create rifts between the two mainstream parties and to make a choice alignment of PPP-PML-Q-MQM-ANP. The two sailed together smoothly but the judge’s issue became the bone of contention between the two. The PPP did not show any keenness to restore the deposed judges because of top leadership’s fears of the infamous NRO getting revoked; PML-N on the other hand made it a prestige point and stated that it was ready to sacrifice everything on this issue. Another friction area was the relationship with president. While PPP showed no reservations in working with Musharraf, Nawaz League itched to throw him out. Conflicting perceptions on these two issues and PPP’s dithering and lackadaisical approach caused strains in their relations.

It was predicted that PPP failure to honour its commitments given in Charter of Democracy in May 2006 and at Bhurban on 9 March 2008 and at Dubai on 31 April could result in estrangement between the two and break up of coalition. As the deadline of 12 May approached near with little scope for reconciliation, sagging morale of the defeatist elements led by Musharraf started to rejuvenate.

Zardari failed to live up to his promise and lost face but not power. Nawaz who had tirelessly fought for the cause of the judges decided to withdraw his ministers from federal cabinet on judges’ issue but to continue to remain part of the coalition. Although he lost power but he further enhanced his stature by taking up a principled stance. He took this bold decision despite being advised by many not to take a rash decision but act pragmatically by continuing to sail along to defeat the designs of their chief protagonist. Musharraf must have rejoiced at this turn of events which have occurred much earlier than predicted timeframe. However, he would have been happier if PML-N had opted out of coalition so that he could operationalise his contingency plan to fill the vacuum with his own cronies.

Sharif brothers’ nomination papers for by-elections scheduled on 18 June have been accepted by Election Commission but they have still to sail past the High Court and Supreme Court run by PCO judges who have not been accepted by them. Appointment of Salman Taseer as Governor Punjab at a time when the whole atmosphere is pregnant with Musharraf inspired conspiracies has further vitiated the atmosphere. PML-N has viewed this as a provocative move to destabilise its ministry in Punjab and is demanding his ouster.

This will further widen the cleavage between the two partners and hasten the break up of coalition. The presidency in league with the PPP has in the meanwhile started to work on various contingencies to be able to fill the void once PML-N departs from the centre and also to affect a change in Punjab. Feeling left out, Nawaz League is trying to take advantage of apparent rift between Ch brothers and president and has thrown some feelers for a possible conciliation with Q League. Reportedly Riaz Malik, the biggest real estate tycoon, at the behest of president is making efforts to prevent such a union. Arrival of Taseer in Lahore has given heart to Hamid Chattha and Manzur Wattoo to speed up their plan to win over forward bloc of Q League and to create a forward bloc in PML-N League in Punjab through horse trading. Punjab is well reputed for game of intrigue,chicanery and gutter politics.

Asif Haroon Raja is a freelance columnist based in Rawalpindi.

- Asian Tribune -

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